In the spring of 2019, when Ernest Holmes graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, he got a huge surprise — billionaire Robert Smith was paying off all of his student loans.

Smith, a tech investor who was the school’s commencement speaker that year, paid off the student loans for Holmes’ entire graduating class. Smith’s directive for the debt-free grads was simple: pay it forward.

Holmes, a Sayreville native, took those words to heart and he’s currently making good at it; he and a classmate, Tavis Thompson, founded CodeHouse, a non-profit company building bridges nationwide, cultivating a pipeline between students of color and industry-leading technology companies.

The goal is to introduce Black and brown students to technology-related skills and opportunities early in life — critical work, Holmes said. Black youth are the least likely racial group to enter into the often lucrative technology fields, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We’re trying to inspire and encourage students of color…we’re literally preparing the next generation to start thinking forward and start thinking ahead to what career pathway they want to go down,” Holmes told NJ Advance Media Tuesday.

Originally created for youth in the Atlanta area, CodeHouse began partnering with major tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Pixar to host “Tech Exposure Days,” where local high school students attended an expo and heard from keynote speakers about career paths and higher education, and competed in technology-based competitions where they could sharpen their skills.

That was before the coronavirus spread rapidly throughout the U.S.

While much of the nation shut down due to the pandemic, CodeHouse was just getting started. It forced Holmes and company to go virtual, and to start thinking about expanding nationally.

Last month, the organization hosted its second event, which organizers labeled a “virtual field trip,” open to students around the country, including 593 kids from 24 schools in New Jersey.

“I had my hometown from Sayreville tuned in,” Holmes said. “It was definitely cool to be able to connect back with some of my roots and to have them attend the event that I created.”

CodeHouse’s mission is in line with the work computer science advocates in the Garden State have been doing in communities of color over the last decade, said Daryl Detrick, Advocacy Chair for the Computer Science Teachers Association of New Jersey and a member of the state’s Computer Science Advisory Board. Detrick is also a science teacher at Warren Hills High School.

“(My students) found it inspirational,” Detrick told NJ Advance Media. “They like hearing from people who are in college and people who are in the field, and getting a better feel for opportunities that are available to them.”

“I just think making students feel a part of a community, making students feel that they fit into that community is a big (takeaway from CodeHouse’s virtual field trip). And having role models that you know that they can relate to is important,” Detrick said.

Black and Hispanic students make up 44% of New Jersey’s school system, yet only around 16% of students who take the AP Computer Science exam are Black and Hispanic, according to Detrick. The good news is enrollment for the course rose 1,272% among Black students and 1,608% among Hispanic students between 2010 and 2019, Detrick said, elaborating that there is more work to be done to improve equity in this area.

“There are currently over 10,000 open computer science jobs in New Jersey and 500,000 open computer science jobs in America that we do not have enough people to fill. And the average computer science job in New Jersey makes about $108,000,” Detrick said. “So if we can teach these kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds computer science education and cybersecurity, we can take them in a short period of time from low income to middle income.”

Nearly 5,000 students from 20 other states and Washington D.C., attended the virtual experience, where one student who plans to attend a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and major in computer science was awarded a $10,000 scholarship. CodeHouse also gave out $30,000 in other prizes: new Xbox consoles, laptops and other gadgets.

“I think it’s super important. You don’t need to be like a rapper or basketball player or a sports player in general, or any kind of like, you know, stereotypical stuff for people of color, to make it and be successful,” Holmes said.

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Tennyson Donyèa may be reached at [email protected].